There's a strong possibility you haven't heard of Xhenet Aliu... yet. She published a little known collection four years ago, Domesticated Wild Things and Other Stories. Personally, I think it is one of the best, most well-rounded collections I've had the pleasure of reading (see my review here). Her stories were dark, yet hopeful, poetic, still simple, specific and universal—so much of what I love. So I was excited when I learned Aliu would soon publish her first novel, Brass.
Naturally, I was a little concerned if Aliu's style—so incredibly effective in short form—could be stretched out over three hundred pages. It does and it doesn't. There's a punch to Aliu's shorter stories that I looked forward to in Brass, but it never came. That's okay. Honestly, there aren't too many novels that have packed that punch, nor need to. Novels are a much more subtle form of writing and it takes an extremely dedicated and talented novelist to surprise a reader and to adequately manipulate their emotions over the length of a novel (Kazuo Ishiguro, I'm talking about you). In every other way, Brass is every bit as powerful as the stories in Aliu's collection. First and foremost, the language is simple, yet always somehow evokes higher emotions—excitement, dread, sympathy:
"...Isn't that what you want?"
I couldn't make my head move up and down in agreement, so I just rested it against his chest, listening to his heart in case it was giving anything away. It sounded like it was beating uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, the droning pulse of a dirge, and that made me feel a little better. That dread was the same kind I felt the first time I saw Bashkim, the same kind I felt when I listened to the best minor-key ballads, and that inspired the kind of love that was easier to nurture than kudzu. It didn't even need light to grow.
For anyone who has read my reviews long enough, you know voice and character development are what matter most to me, as a reader. This is perhaps what I love most about Aliu's writing. She is adept at crafting a wonderful, memorable voice and in providing characters who are extremely realistic, yet never boring. The characters in Aliu's story are incredibly real. I felt as though I were prying into their private lives. Brass uses alternating viewpoints. The first is Elsie's. Hers is written in the first person and takes place during the 1980s. The second is Luljeta's, Elsie's daughter. Her story occurs in recent years and is written in the second person. I, like many readers, am not a big fan of second person narratives, but in this case it's done well and is only occasionally noticeable. What purpose does the second-person narration serve? I'm not sure. In a story where both mother and daughter live similar lives in like environments, it's difficult at time to keep their stories straight and these perspective do perhaps aid in differentiating the two. Also, I think what it does initially is to help the reader feel closer to Luljeta. Although her mother's story begins the novel and is vitally important, Brass is really Luljeta's story. As Elsie's story builds and becomes more interesting than Luljeta's in middle chapters, the reader has already grown close to Luljeta, so her mother's story does not surpass her own.
Brass possesses so much honesty—it's incredibly believable but that doesn't keep it from being interesting and beautiful. Aliu is a master of taking the everyday world and finding a story in its darkest most-well-lit places. She doesn't need to reshape or glamorize what she finds, she merely looks at it from a different perspective and is able to put it into words with great skill. Aliu is such a terrific writer and Brass is just the story that will introduce many new readers to her work.